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COMMENTARY | It’s time for our country to embrace asphalt art as a creative, low-cost way to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
Crossing the street has never been more dangerous. Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. are at a 40-year high, surging 77% since 2010. This is partly due to a spike in reckless driving during the pandemic, but also to outdated federal road standards that prioritize fast-flowing traffic over safety for people walking or cycling. While the federal government has slow-walked an overhaul of its guidelines that could steer us to safer streets, local communities have taken up the slack, exploring creative, low-cost ways to save lives—including asphalt art.
Cities coast-to-coast are increasingly turning to arts-driven street redesigns—think colorful crosswalks, intersection murals and painted pedestrian plazas—to quickly improve city streets and make them safer and more welcoming, particularly to people walking or cycling. The mere presence of artwork can remind drivers that these are people-centered spaces. But beyond aesthetic appeal, many asphalt art installations also include significant safety enhancements like curb extensions to shorten crossing distances and slow motor vehicles.
These small-scale design interventions have had an outsized impact on improving the safety and walkability of city streets. A study released through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Asphalt Art Initiative last year showed that rates of crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists dropped by an average of 50% after asphalt art was installed. Yet, despite a growing amount of supporting data, current U.S. federal standards are stubbornly silent on asphalt art.
That means that each time an American city takes on an asphalt art project, they are coloring outside the lines of national street design guidance. The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD, is the official document produced by the Federal Highway Administration that prescribes everything down to the shape and color of a stop sign. What is notably missing from its pages is people. Last updated nearly 15 years ago, the manual still reflects a suburban mindset, prioritizing the efficient flow of cars over the safety of people on the street. So, it is no surprise that it discourages the pedestrian-focused practice of asphalt art in favor of monochrome, monotonous asphalt.
There is some hope, with the next draft of the MUTCD underway as the U.S. Department of Transportation digests the 25,000 comments received on a first redraft in 2021. The update is due to drop this year, but it remains to be seen if the guidance will meet the moment and steer us away from the current safety crises.
In the meantime, cities aren’t waiting for the new rule book and have continued to turn to artists for innovative safety solutions. This growing movement inspired Bloomberg Philanthropies to launch its Asphalt Art Initiative in 2019, which has since supported 64 projects across the U.S. and Europe and produced guidance for cities everywhere.
The results speak for themselves. A project in Baltimore installed curb extensions near a school where cars had been recorded at speeds as high as 85 mph. Before the artwork, only 37% of drivers would yield to pedestrians; afterward 78% yielded to people on foot. Similarly, at a neighborhood intersection in Kansas City rife with illegal speeding, colorful curb extensions reduced traffic speeds by 45%. And the art affects how people feel about crossing the street: After a vibrant intersection mural was installed near an elementary school in Durham, the percentage of people who felt unsafe crossing fell from 85% to just 6%.
With asphalt art an increasingly proven science, many city and community leaders have already been convinced of its benefits—even if the federal guidelines stay stuck in grayscale. New opportunities continue, as Bloomberg Philanthropies readies an announcement of the next round of Asphalt Art Initiative grantees in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, in the fall. In the meantime, the Asphalt Art Guide and other learnings compiled from asphalt art pioneers can help cities shape their own asphalt art programs without reinventing the wheel.
Now is the time for the country to catch up to its cities, expand the color palette and paint the way to safer streets. The U.S. Department of Transportation has a golden opportunity to embrace the positive impacts of asphalt art—just one of many safety-driven innovations created by cities themselves—and steer the national street design guidance in the right direction and give every city a permission slip to innovate. As such an effective safety measure, anything less than a full embrace of asphalt art would be a failure of imagination.
David Andersson is on the Arts and Culture team and Nicholas Mosquera on the Transportation team at Bloomberg Associates, the pro bono municipal consulting wing of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Together, they oversee the Asphalt Art Initiative.